Tim Whyte | Awesome and Terrifying: The Songs of the Gibbons

Tim Whyte
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By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

It’s surreal when the gibbons start singing in Bouquet Canyon. One of our reporters describes it as both awesome and terrifying. 

I don’t know exactly what all of their individual and unique hoots and hollers mean. I understand there are mating calls and territorial claims in the mix, but if you were to tell me they are plotting the overthrow of the human race, you just might convince me. 

“Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Gibbons…”

Hey. We’re vulnerable right now. 

Kidding aside, it’s said their calls can be heard from as far as 2 miles away, and when we visited the Gibbon Conservation Center last weekend, I didn’t hear anything to contradict that. 

It’s one of the fairly hidden jewels of the Santa Clarita Valley, tucked away in the rural country off Bouquet Canyon Road, south of Vasquez Canyon Road. 

They only sing in the morning. It was our second visit over the past couple of years, and just as we were on the first visit, this time we were treated to quite the 15-minute morning serenade from these amazing, agile apes — all of them endangered species. 

That’s where the Gibbon Center comes in. It’s a labor of love for their small paid staff and the volunteers who help them. The center works with other organizations around the world to successfully breed multiple species of endangered gibbons and protect them from extinction. 

A big part of the job is matchmaking. 

Director Gabriella “Gabi” Skollar and her team work to feed, provide medical care, and, yes, help choose potential mates for the gibbons. There’s no dating app for gibbons, so it takes a keen eye for behavioral observation and what’s best for the species. 

They’re very social animals, and Skollar says they sometimes mate for life but, like humans, sometimes a relationship runs its course, the couple get bored with each other, or an older male takes an interest in younger females. 

No word on whether the older male buys a sports car and starts wearing leisure suits, but I digress. 

They offer tours of the Gibbon Center on weekend mornings, and it’s a fascinating experience. Skollar provides lots of insight into the long-armed gibbons — including the fact that they can reach 35 mph as they swing from limb to limb in their enclosures — and if you have a question about this most-rare group of apes in the Western Hemisphere, she’s got the answer. 

I highly recommend a visit. They run on admission fees and donations, and these gibbons can eat, so a lot goes into just feeding and caring for them. (The Gibbon Center’s kitchen is busy, and their food bill is a whopper…) 

There’s an adorable little baby gibbon in the mix right now, but the ever-attentive momma was doing a pretty good job of hiding the little one from view when we were there. 

Don’t wait too long to visit, though. The Gibbon Center’s lease runs out in a couple of years, and the property is valuable. Development pressure is coming right to the center’s doorstep, and with new homeowners being the sometimes arrogant lot they can be, it’s not hard to imagine that someone will someday buy a home in a new development next door to the Gibbon Center and start complaining about the noise that was there for more than 40 years before the buyer came to town.

Plus, the Gibbon Center’s property owner isn’t inclined to renew their lease. The Gibbon Center was founded in 1976 by Alan Mootnick, and when he died in 2011, the land changed hands and the current owner sees the property value writing on the wall.

So, they’re looking for a new location — in fact, one with a milder climate that may be more representative of the gibbons’ natural rainforest habitat in Southeast Asia. Malibu would be great, but talk about property values…

I’m rooting for Santa Barbara, which would still be close enough for a weekend visit. But that doesn’t sound cheap, either. 

In the meantime, please go check out our cousins, the gibbons — the only nonhuman primates that mainly walk on two legs, at least when they’re not swinging from tree limbs 40 feet apart. They are sure to entertain and enchant. Go in the morning, when the Gibbon Center opens, so you can hear them sing, and decide for yourself:

Do we have anything to fear?

To learn more about the Gibbon Conservation Center or to donate to the center’s relocation fund, visit gibboncenter.org. 

A gibbon at the Gibbon Conservation Center takes a break after the morning sing-along. Tim Whyte/The Signal

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter:  @TimWhyte.  

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